It’s pretty safe to say that Americans have learned nothing from Watergate.
Specifically, they have failed to remember that if it walks like a scandal, looks like a scandal, and quacks like a scandal, then guess what? That’s right: it’s not a duck.
As a generally ahistorical people, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that American institutional memory doesn’t go back forty or forty-five years (although if you question the validity of preserving and displaying monuments to figures on the losing side of a rebellion 150 years ended, be prepared for shrill cries protesting about cultural heritage). Hell, many Americans when surveyed can scarcely name the three branches of government (in this, they share something with the gibbering buffoon who they in their infinite wisdom “elected” in November, 2016). Arguably, the current crop of American voters have more real, real-time information available to them than any similar group in history. Yet that access to information is not always accompanied by a proportionate intake of facts or outpouring of rational, intelligent reflection on those facts. So the fact remains that if you are under the age of about sixty, and if you are not a keen reader, historian, or student of journalism, the events surrounding the Watergate break-in and the fallout which ensued are likely not well known to you. Let me suggest, for a moment, why they should be, and why the best place to start learning those facts is the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men.
Even if you don’t know the book or the details of the story, most people in the Western world probably know a few basic things about the Watergate affair. They may grasp the reason — however orthographically inaccurate it may be — for the affixing of the suffix “-gate” to any noun to denote a scandal. They may know key phrases, like “follow the money” and “I’m not a crook,” even if the related context is muddied. Some may even have a memory of watching that fateful moment on television, when Nixon boarded Marine One for the last time, waved his arms with “V for Victory” fingers extended, and flew away into history (or to writing his petulant memoirs with Diane Sawyer at his California ranch). Personally, I have a false memory of that event which I cannot shake; despite having been almost too young to have registered it at the time, it is even more unlikely that the telly was switched on to the news that day, as I would have been in the charge of a regrettably Republican female caregiver.
The bare bones of the Watergate scandal are pretty straightforward. A squad of burglars, dressed in black suits and ties and wearing black leather gloves, was caught and arrested in the course of a break-in at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. The capture of a group of burglars at the eponymous office complex was a starting point, from which began to unravel a chain of conspiracy and dirty tricks so pervasive that many of the President’s staff were implicated in a variety of criminal trespasses, and, faced with the threat of impeachment proceedings in the Senate, Republican President Richard Nixon was forced to resign on 9 August 1974, leaving his ill-favored Vice President, Gerald R. Ford, to serve out the remainder of his term.
Motivated by the paranoia and desperation for power of Nixon, who until recently held the title of most corrupt American President ever, these burglars were part of a group within Nixon’s White House tasked with missions to take succour from the President’s enemies, called “the Plumbers” as they were known for fixing leaks, by various methods of spying, subterfuge, and dirty tricks. For some Nixon enemies, these rogue units even had a special, unpleasant name for their actions: they called it “ratfucking”. Anyone who wasn’t with Nixon, obviously, was a rat, and the forced copulation could take any number of forms: they completely destroyed, for example, the reputation of the once-admired Hubert Humphrey. They were not above going after a man, any man (but not a woman, for with the exception of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, this is very much a story in which the players are men), for whatever weakness he happened to show.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were both younger reporters on the Washington Post’s metropolitan beat. Woodward originally took the call to look into the arrest of the suited burglars. Bernstein happened to be interested (which he manifested early on by taking Woodward’s copy from his typewriter and editing it), and soon the two men began to work together. Their stories in the Post consisted of everything they could lay their hands on as they attempted to chase to ground a story of corruption and cover-up. The result was this 1974 book, published within months of the dramatic resignation of Nixon in August. It depicts not only the course of the investigation, focussing on many of the stories produced by the pair for the Post.
The story is by turns elevated and sordid, which seems to be a valid state for any story about American governance. The naming of Woodward’s source as “Deep Throat,” for example, must have been almost shockingly pornographic to readers of 1974 (there is even a scene in the book where, to kill a few hours out of the Post’s offices and avoid a subpoena, Bernstein actually goes — rather matter-of-factly — to see the film from which they took the source’s code-name in a Washington D.C. cinema). This is not the elevated vocabulary of the highest-flown political rhetoric, nor is the primary school stuff about the wonders of American government to which practically every American school child in the 1970s — yours truly included — was exposed. Instead, there is a tension (deliberate, of course) between the highest ideals of the Fourth Estate and the utter debasedness of the Nixon establishment. But of course, it isn’t that simple. Reading around the subject, we learn that Nixon’s White House was supposed to be full of clean-cut, moral, upstanding young men, who were there because they believed in Nixon and were ardent, well-educated, just-out-of-college Republicans. An answer in a way to the counter-culture of the 1960s, Nixon’s aides were supposed, ironically, to be of unimpeachable character. That some of the more unsavory of them appealed to the darker side of Nixon’s complicated id will not be a surprise to anyone who reads this book.
What is perhaps most interesting about this book is the matter-of-fact portrayal of the relentless grind of reporting. Woodward and Bernstein do not spare themselves, and show how often they got things wrong, although the focus is understandably on building the narrative from break-in, to cover-up, to resignation. Their editors, including Ben Bradlee, play significant roles, as good editors will. But we are treated to a master class in how investigative reporting is supposed to work, how to cultivate and develop contacts within government and the civil service, and even how to treat sources who want to help, but are afraid of the consequences. This is what journalism as an art, and journalists as artists (if that isn’t too flowery), are supposed to be like. They should not be craven shills, or mouthpieces for this or that administration, and only a dictatorially-minded authoritarian whose policies and goals are genuinely dangerous to the American system would want that. Woodward and Bernstein’s treatment of Hugh Sloan, for example, shows how important the development of trust, and the concern for sources as human beings, will take a journalist. That this must be tempered in other cases with a certain ruthlessness, however, is also not forgotten. If I had read this book when I long ago was considering journalism as a degree field, if someone had put it into my hands and said: “here, really: read this,” my life might have followed a very different path. It’s that good. (Instead, for the record, my father gave me the collected works of William Allen White, which although fascinating, are far too genteel for the time in which I was growing up, and lack the punch of the Watergate story, although as I recall they’re pretty good on the Teapot Dome scandal).
It is also easy to paint this book in the broad strokes of the 1970s. Images from the 1976 film version here serve to help; the shaggy hair on men, the bold and uniquely 1970s color-schemes of clothes, rooms, cars, and appliances (ah, marigold and avocado), and even the sense-memory of fabrics which if rubbed together correctly would catch fire: all of these contribute to building a mental sense-scape of the world of All the President’s Men. The film, I hasten to add, conveys this very well, as it was nearly contemporary with the events of the book: the brightness of the sodium lights at night, the oddly boxy automobiles, the dim interiors of the McDonald’s where Woodward and Bernstein grabbed meals and discussed their leads (which I remembered with shock as a contrast to the wildly dissimilar edifices of today), the sound of typewriters and the crude but satisfying effort of looking things up in telephone directories; these make All the President’s Men seem almost as though it took place in a different world.
The modern parallels too are striking. We need to understand the Watergate era because it isn’t at all difficult to make the case that Nixon and Trump share many similarities. As I read, I kept marking pages which resonated with the news of the first four months of 2017: the deceptive Press Secretary, the false dichotomy of “real America” versus disingenuous nonsense about “journalistic elites,” the unaccountable cash from campaign funds used in shady dealings, and stories of disinformation campaigns (although in this case, carried out with telegrams) are rife. There is one key difference, however: Nixon, whatever his faults (and they were many), was not stupid. In fact, he was cagily smart in many ways, a fact which led, by the 1990s, to a surprising degree of rehabilitation of his reputation. This will not happen with Trump and his cover-ups, his lies, and the mendacity and sinister deal-making of his underlings and family members. If we survive this dark era, and I naturally hope that we will, but worry about the form that survival may take, there will be no rehabilitation. Those who are in the position to choose sides now had best do so carefully. The events of All the President’s Men are now history, and history judges impartially, just as the days of the late-2010s will be judged. Whether that judgment is by humanity, twenty-five years or so from now, or by the next species to evolve in our wake and make a dedicated archaeological examination of the radioactive rubble and waste of human civilization, that remains to be seen.
Reviewed April / May, 2017.